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Plains Cree bonnets.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the western bands of Plains Cree appear to have adopted the sloping circle bonnet in common with most Northern Plains tribes.

"Straight-up" bonnets were in use within the Plains Cree geographical range, similar to those of the Blackfeet in construction--the feathers are fixed to a headband in an upright position when being worn, a style of headdress which appears to have had a wide distribution, with numerous variations, through the whole of eastern North America (photos 1 and 2).

The Blackfeet and Plains Cree had their original homes much further east than their 19th century range, which is probably a further indication of the eastern fixed feather style bonnet carried westward by migrating nations developed into the eagle feather straight-up style bonnet associated with the Blackfeet and Mandan, perhaps modified later by Upper Missouri tribes into the crown, circle or "warbonnet" sloping backwards. [Taylor 1962 & 1971].

The Glasgow Museum, Glasgow, Scotland, has a fine complete outfit which is probably Plains or Parklands Cree (photo 3). It has a headdress of feathers fixed upright to a wide headband.

Another example of the fixed feather headdress is that described by the collector John Riddoch Rymill (1905-1968) as "old style" now in the Scott Polar Research Institute Archives, University of Cambridge, U.K., collected from the Plains Cree in 1929. The headband foundation is a simple band of rawhide; the front has a wide band of beadwork and overlaps the bottom of the feather quills, a trait noticed on both upright and sloping bonnets collected from the Plains Cree. Several Cree bonnets of both styles had fairly short feathers, usually no more than 12 inches long and often mature eagle feathers , either tail or wing feathers. When the Plains Cree adopted the modified or sloping circle bonnet, it would appear they retained certain features of the earlier style. Rymill also documented a modified style Plains Cree bonnet suggesting the adoption was very late by the Plains Cree. The feathers used in the later style Cree bonnets seem to be shorter than those used by other tribes, and dark feathers are just as common as the black and white eagle feathers usually seen on Plains' bonnets. More interesting is the uncommonly used method of attaching the feathers to the foundation. This method has each feather independently attached to the foundation; not as is usually the case by means of a thong laced in and out of a felt crown.

This writer examined three documented Cree bonnets using this method and am inclined to believe it is a Cree trait, perhaps a modification on the method of independently fixing each feather in an upright position on the earlier bonnets. However, the writer has noted bonnets documented as Cree using he conventional method, but never encountered the independent feather style on a sloping bonnet or any bonnet other than those attributed to the Plains Cree or other Parklands people.

The following description of a Plains Cree bonnet formerly in the Hudson's Bay Co., London now in Winnipeg, made about 1900-1910, will serve as a typical example of this style (photo 4). The feathers are all 12 to 12 / inches long and are eagle tail feathers, mostly dark. The bonnet comprises 34 feathers, 17 on each side. To the top of each feather is attached, with pine or spruce gum, a tuft of soft white horsehair 10 inches long, which is stuck on the outside of the feather about / inch down from the tip. The horsehair is covered with three or four dark red dyed chicken feathers % inches long. On this, a piece of white fur / inch wide (white rabbit or ermine) is attached.

The feathers are tied through the foundation about / inch from the edge all around, and a control string through each feather is tied at the rear in the conventional way. The foundation is made of light gray felt of double thickness in the form of a wide headband to circle the head about 24 inches all around, being a maximum of 4 inches wide at the front and 3 inches a the back. On each side, a conch disc is attached through a single hole in its center with a knotted buckskin thong knotted outside. To the knot is tied colored silks. The edge of the beaded browband has large seed beads sewn every 1/8 inch. The ends of the feathers are bound with colored silks; pink, light blue, dark red and white, 2 to 2 / inches long.

Cree bonnets, of the later type, are also bound at the feather ends with wool or silk, or sometimes with red cloth. The brow bands are either loomed beadwork or applique beadwork and very wide, but the method of independently attaching each feather with a piece of buckskin knotted inside the crown is the most interesting Northern variation from the most commonly known and used a lacing technique. In both the east and west, eagle feathers were used to display military powers.

Horned bonnets were also very popular among the Plains Cree and their neighbors, the Assiniboine. The photograph of Fine Day (photo 6) shows him wearing a horned bonnet trimmed with ermine skins and a wide beaded brow band.


Taylor, C.F. (1962). Plains Indian Headgear. The English Westerners' Brand Book, April 4:3.

(1971). Iron Tails' Warbonnet. American Indian Crafts and Culture, April 5:4 and May 5:5.

Thanks to the former Hudson's Bay Company, London, and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, U.K.

* Photo 4 appears in Arts & Crafts of the Native American Tribes by Michael Johnson, p.117 and used here with permission of the author and publisher Firefly Books, Ltd., Ontario.

This article first appeared in American Indian Crafts and Culture, 5:7, 1971 and has been updated by the author for re-publication.

Caption: Photo 1: Native clothing collected by Andrew Foster, a lieutenant in the British Army at Fort Michilimackinac, Lake Michigan, during the American Revolution, c. 1780. The headdress is of eagle tail feathers with quillwork (and horse hair?) along the spines, attached upright to a cloth band or turban with metal rings. The items shown may come from a number of different tribes, likely including the Ojibwa.

National Museum of the American Indian.

Caption: Photo 2: Chief Tanaghte, or Wabumagoging (Eclipse) of the Batchewana Ojibwa band from near Sault Ste. Marie, north shore of Lake Superior. He is wearing a "straight-up" eagle feather headdress with possibly a birch bark brow band.

Painting by Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872) during a visit to Montreal to meet Lord Elgin, a British colonial official, c. 1849.

Author's collection.

Caption: Photo 3: Northeastern Plains or marginal Plains, probably Cree clothing including a "straight-up" bonnet. The clothing is decorated with applique quillwork in fine and narrow units, typical of early Cree work. The shirt is an outstanding example, lacking the open front commonly associated with Cree coats. Quilled circle, rosettes and neck piece are reminiscent of Plains traits. Cut and bottom edge designs are suggestive of Subarctic coats. Early 19th century.

Glasgow Museum, Scotland.

Caption: Photo 4 *

Caption: Red Dog, Chief of the Star Blanket Cree, c. 1929-1930. He wears a circle bonnet with a wide beaded brow band that covers the attachment of the front feathers to the crown; a feature that probably connects with the earlier "straight-up" headdress.

Author's collection.

Caption: Photo 5: Ojibwa or Cree ? Straight-up headdress likely first half 19th.century. Goose and swan feathers ? Headband woven beadwork, quillwork and painting. Probably from the north side of Lake Superior.

Photo Courtesy Skinner, Inc.,

Caption: Photo 6: Fine Day of the Sweet Grass band near Battleford, Saskatchewan wearing a horned bonnet trimmed with ermine skins and a wide beaded brow band; earth 20th century.

Author's collection.
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Author:Johnson, Michael
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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